The 2024 News-Gazette All-State boys' basketball Player of the Year: Thornton's Morez Johnson Jr.

Apr. 27—HARVEY — Morez Johnson Jr. could have left the state of Illinois at almost any time in the last couple years.

Prep schools playing a national schedule would have opened their doors wide for the 6-foot-9 big man who broke into the national rankings as a top 40-level prospect the summer before his junior year.

Other standout basketball players in the state have followed that particular path. Including three of Johnson's St. Rita teammates last summer. North Carolina-bound James Brown left for Link Academy in Missouri, future Iowa State guard Nojus Indrusaitis chose Brewster Academy in New Hampshire and Class of 2025 four-star guard Melvin Bell decamped for La Lumiere School in Indiana.

Johnson didn't stick with St. Rita — not after the Mustangs' roster blew up and their coach left — but he also didn't leave the state. His decision to play his senior season at Thornton actually brought him closer to home.

"It's my local high school," Johnson said. "I live probably seven minutes away from there. My whole family went to Thornton, so it was really an honor to go back to Thornton and have the success we had. Of course, it came up short those few games from state, but we still had a great year.

"Thornton hadn't won sectionals in 14 years. Hopefully, this team got Thornton back to where winning is still the standard. Hopefully, in the next few years, some kids will come there who actually live in the district and not go to Catholic schools or other schools and come to Thornton and push it to state every year."

Johnson certainly did his part to put Thornton back on the basketball map in Illinois, averaging 20 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and three steals for a 29-5 team that got edged out by Peoria Richwoods in a Class 3A super-sectional game, leaving the Wildcats and Johnson one win away from the state tournament at State Farm Center in Champaign.

But his dominance all season was more than enough to make the future Illinois big man the 2024 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year. Johnson will follow in the footsteps of Adam Miller, Mark Smith, Rayvonte Rice (eventually), Jereme Richmond, Dee Brown, Brian Cook, Sergio McClain, Marcus Liberty, Larry Smith and Nick Anderson, who also ended up with the Illini and won The News-Gazette's All-State Player of the Year accolade.

Part of Johnson's decision to pick Illinois — a commitment he made as a high school sophomore in November 2021 — lined up with why he opted to transfer to Thornton to close out his high school career. Champaign is a little further from home, but the roughly 90-minute trip is just right.

"My family is here," Johnson said. "I've got family coming to the games. My dad and mom were at every game. That was very important to me. Knowing I'm going to be an hour and 30 minutes away, that's great they can still come to the games every time."

Family, friends and Illinois fans got to watch Johnson and Thornton rip through the 2023-24 season. The Wildcats rolled in the Southland Conference, dropping just one game to Bloom Township, and they picked up notable wins throughout the season against Kenwood, Normal Community, Kankakee, Bishop Noll (Ind.), Richmond Heights (Ohio) and Metamora.

Brad Underwood was watching, too. The Illinois coach has often called working the transfer portal in the offseason "speed dating." Johnson and the Illini have a long-term relationship.

"Morez is terrific," Underwood said. "He had a great season and is continuing to get better. It was fun to watch his development throughout his high school career. He committed so early. I'm excited for what his path looks like. I think he's a guy that his best basketball is way in front of him and just excited to see him wearing orange and blue."

Illinois' 2024 recruiting class only runs two deep after Jase Butler flipped this month to Washington, but Johnson has always been the centerpiece prospect. He's ranked in the top 30 nationally by 247Sports, Rivals and ESPN and is a consensus four-star prospect.

All accomplished while staying home.

"A lot of players can't say they still stayed in Illinois and had the success I had in Illinois on a national standpoint," Johnson said. "They feel like they have to leave the state to go do things. Personally, I think I did a great job these four years. I stayed. I didn't get too worried about other people. I kept working, kept my head in the right place and focused on my game and got better."

All while taking on a bigger role at Thornton than he had at St. Rita playing with Brown, Indrusaitis and Bell. All four-star recruits in their own right. Johnson still had help in a trio of senior guards in Isaiah Green, Meyoh Swansey and Chase Abraham that also earned varying N-G all-state honors, but the future Illini was the focal point.

"I had a lot of stuff I had to do to make sure we got the wins," Johnson said. "I had to make sure I was a leader. I had to talk to my players the right way to get the best out of them. I was getting triple- and double-teamed, so I had to make sure I made the right reads when I passed the ball and not just turn the ball over. I think my IQ grew. I think my ball-handling got better. I just got better at everything and sharpened everything — especially my mentally."

Johnson won't be asked to do quite as much as a freshman at Illinois. He will certainly factor into the frontcourt equation, but the Illini have already added Notre Dame transfer Carey Booth and continue to mine the portal for at least one more big.

But Johnson will still play.

"He's physically gifted," Underwood said. "He's got a great body. He's athletic. He's going to be successful just from the athletic standpoint. I'm excited to get him in here this summer and start working on our stuff. His athleticism and his physicality will allow him to be successful early."